Guatemala: A Traditional Community Fights for Its Land

The members of Centro Campesino, a cooperative in Guatemala’s Petén region, are fighting to recover their land. Their displacement, their struggle, and their inability to protect their community, Yaxchilan, reveal the surprising ways that both export-led development plans and conservation programs can disregard the interests of indigenous and traditional communities. For conservation groups, this oversight can lead to a failure to ally with the only communities that may effectively stop mining, petroleum exploration, hydroelectric dams, and monoculture crops that destroy the environment.

Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens

The members of Centro Campesino, a cooperative in Guatemala’s Petén region, are fighting to recover their land. Their displacement, their struggle, and their inability to protect their community, Yaxchilan, reveal the surprising ways that both export-led development plans and conservation programs can disregard the interests of indigenous and traditional communities. For conservation groups, this oversight can lead to a failure to ally with the only communities that may effectively stop mining, petroleum exploration, hydroelectric dams, and monoculture crops that destroy the environment.

In 1976, the first members of Centro Campesino arrived in Yaxchilan. They were desperately poor peasants from Eastern Guatemala, participating in a colonization project administered by Guatemala’s military and pushed by the U.S. government. “It was a mosquito nest!” remembers one resident. Despite the harsh conditions, extreme poverty led a few desperate families to stay “even if,” as one of them told me, “the tigers ate us.”

For three years the people struggled, suffering heat, humidity, clouds of mosquitoes, and back-breaking labor. Slowly life improved. The land was productive. “We grew everything!” recounts a woman from the community, as others catalog the community’s crops: corn, beans, coffee, cardamom, rice, pineapple, sweet potato, “todo!” Together with other cooperatives along the Usumacinta and Pasión Rivers, Centro Campesino formed the Federation of Cooperatives of the Petén (FECAP). Cooperative organizing, undertaken with the support of Catholic clergy, allowed FECAP to push the reluctant military government to grant land titles. The communities bought boats, trucks, tractors, and storage facilities to market cooperatively. They reinvested profits in their communities, building health centers, schools, churches, community centers, and cooperative offices. They lived happily for a few years. Their happiness ended with the arrival of the country’s armed conflict.

In 1981, the military forced the priest who had initiated the settlement of Centro Campesino, and had acted as adviser to FECAP, to flee in a high-speed boat through a shower of bullets to the Mexican border. In the following days, the military occupied the community. They kidnapped and tortured two cooperative leaders. Half the community fled to Mexico. The other half stayed. While the people of Centro Campesino lived under occupation, the military massacred and burned cooperatives on either side of them. In 1984, remembers one resident, an army captain advised them that “we had 15 days, 15 days to leave. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘if you go nothing will happen. That’s why we’re giving you 15 days. If you don’t go, we’ll have to kill you.’”

They left. Military officials came in civilian trucks, dressed in civilian clothes and transferred the community members to new land, near San Andrés in the Petén. It was inferior, low land, without water. The people had no title to it, but they retained the dream of retuning to Yaxchilan after the war.

In 1991, five years before the signing of the Peace Accords, the Guatemalan government created the “Law of Protected Areas.” About 70% of the Petén was declared part of a nature preserve. That land includes one of the most spectacular rain forests in Latin America and some of the most important Maya archeological sites. It also includes the country’s largest petroleum reserves, the greatest sources of water for hydroelectric dams, and the most fertile land for growing African Palm Trees. These resources place the Petén at the heart of export-led development plans visualized in the 1960s and articulated in the U.S.-promoted Plan Puebla Panama/Central American Free Trade Agreement (PPP/CAFTA).

The presence of these resources in the Petén suggests a different logic behind the creation of nature preserves. A former official of the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the underfunded government agency responsible for administering the protected areas, observed that because Guatemala was not industrialized, it did not need nature preserves. Instead, the “law of protected areas” followed the “logic of the first world to maintain natural preserves, but not because they’re interested in birds, or interested in the forest, or interested in the smallest bug, but because they’re interested in what lies below: oil.”

There was a fundamental conflict between the interests of people, like the peasants of Centro Campesino, and those of Guatemala’s national government and the United States. Indigenous peasants view the Petén as a rich source of agricultural land to sustain their families and communities. Advocates of export-led development view the Petén as a source of income to benefit multinational corporations and some of Guatemala’s wealthy families.

Ironically, the law of protected areas, ostensibly designed to protect natural resources, resolved this conflict by regulating and removing the people. “It’s logical to recognize,” concluded the former CONAP official, “that it’s much easier to remove nature that doesn’t protest, than it is to remove human communities that do protest.” The U.S. and Guatemalan governments did not consult the communities in the Petén before establishing the “law of protected areas.” In fact, the Guatemalan military identified settlers as guerrillas. USAID, which offered the largest source of funding for the “Maya Biosphere Reserve,” reported that as late as 1991, no one in the region had even heard of it.

USAID also recognized a “potential for conflict,” since cooperatives, refugees in Mexico, and Communities of Peoples in Resistance (CPRs) all looked to the Petén as a potential home. These well-organized communities shared a history of struggle and resistance. At the end of the 1980s, former members of FECAP began to re-initiate contact, forming the Union of the Cooperatives Waves of Usumacinta (AUCOOBUS). Refugees working with the United Nations Commission for Refugees (ACNUR) began to negotiate settlements. And CPRs already lived in the area, moving constantly to evade the military. A CONAP survey, undertaken by a small contingent of devoted individuals eager to demonstrate that the communities of the Petén were not guerrillas, found some 85 civilian settlements in the Sierra Lacandón alone. The survey also revealed communities like Centro Campesino that owned their land free-and-clear.

The presence of highly organized traditional and indigenous communities represented a clear obstacle to the development of hydroelectric dams, petroleum, and export crops. Even though the Law of Protected Areas pledged to respect private property, Centro Campesino became subject to extraordinary pressure to sell Yaxchilan. The pressure came not from private commercial interests or from the government, but from USAID’s partner in the Maya Biosphere Project, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s largest conservation organization with more than $3 billion in resources. TNC worked hand in hand with the U.S. and Guatemalan governments to prevent people from returning to their homes.

For some two years, the members of Centro Campesino resisted selling their land. TNC hired a man who had worked with cooperatives in the Petén before the armed conflict as a negotiator to help persuade the community that a sale was in their interest. At the same time, as researcher Pierre van der Vaeren recounts, “The names of all the [Centro Campesino cooperative] associates who had taken refuge in Mexico disappeared from the list of original associates registered with INACOP [The National Institute of Cooperatives].” TNC then used its resources to track down a sufficient number of Centro Campesino associates to reach the quorum necessary for a legal sale.

“They put a lot of pressure on us, a lot of pressure,” remembers one community member. “We had no adviser. We were left alone.” In the end, TNC bought Yaxchilan — about 25,000 acres of prime land with Maya artifacts, precious wood, and endangered flora and fauna — for approximately $450,000. USAID supplied the funds. At the time, people recognized the price as below market value. But more painful than the cost, was the struggle lost. “How much time and labor, how we struggled to pay for the title to the land,” recounts one man. “All those years, for nothing,” laments another. “[T]he land was a gift, it was a total gift.”

It was not a gift that was valued. Within a decade of the sale, Yaxchilan was destroyed. TNC, which turned the land over to its Guatemalan partner, Defensores de la Naturaleza (Defenders of Nature), neither preserved nature nor stopped settlement. Instead, it opened the Biosphere Reserve for destruction by removing a highly organized community that had preserved the land. When the children of Centro Campesino tried to return to reclaim their parents’ land, they were criminalized as “invaders.”

The Law of Protected Areas failed utterly to preserve nature, but it created a framework for regulating existing communities and criminalizing those who settled after the declaration of the law. People are settled in the Petén. And more arrive daily as PPP/CAFTA shift agricultural land from subsistence toward export production, forcing peasants to seek new land. Settlers’ criminalized status limits their ability to organize.

The trend toward the criminalization of “invaders,” increased in 2006, when the government combined adjudication of narcotrafficking with crimes against the environment. Peasants seeking land were equated with narcotraffickers in a pattern similar to what researcher Laura Carlsen has identified as the criminalization of migrants by the U.S.-sponsored Plan México on the other side of the border. In fact, the Petén has, indeed, become home to narcotraffickers and has become one of the most violent regions in Guatemala.

TNC, which has allied with USAID and the Guatemalan government, may be blinded to the larger and more devastating economic interests in the Petén, when they focus instead on the need to remove people. TNC’s role in displacing Centro Campesino reflects the greater failure of large conservancy NGOs to ally with indigenous and traditional communities. In Guatemala, the irony of this exclusion is that these communities are unquestionably the most powerful forces, arguably the only forces, preventing the development of industries that are destroying the environment. But then, maybe that’s the point.


Susan Fitzpatrick Behrens teaches History and Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge.

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